“If you don’t go away, eventually they can’t ignore you”, meet Zoe Lyons, Stand Up Comedian #ICMyPlace

17 September, 2021

Zoe Lyons is a brilliant comedian who you may recognise from Mock the Week, Live at the Apollo and, most recently, her own BBC show, Lightning.

Having lived all over the UK, Zoe is now part of Brighton & Hove’s creative community and runs Bent Double every month at the iconic Komedia.

We were thrilled to sit down with Zoe and talk about her experience of finding her place in comedy, her 20-year long career (shhhh!), and why Brighton is such a great place for comedy and the arts. What are the most exciting aspects of your work?

I’m at that lucky point in my career, where occasionally I have to pinch myself and go “I can’t believe that this is actually happening.”

Getting an opportunity to host my own game show on BBC was a big thing for me. I’d never envisioned myself hosting a game show – I think in a lot of people’s heads, it’s one step above a cruise ship entertainer, it has that cheesy element to it. But once I was given the opportunity, I realised all the stand-up and compèring I’d done for all those years had made me a perfect candidate. I’m so glad we’ve got a second series, too.


During the craziness of the last 18 months, which aspect of your job have you missed most?


Definitely the live audiences. When the unimaginable happened eighteen months ago, I think a lot of comedians went into shock. We all had to adjust and get used to doing things differently. Initially, I was sceptical about moving to virtual events. I didn’t go into it with an open mind. But it’s incredible how people adapt and change. 

“It wasn’t easy to adapt to such a different environment, performing down the lens of a laptop. But we managed to make it work. It just proves how much people want entertainment, to feel connected and have a laugh.”

When doing online gigs, you don’t get that rolling laughter. The first time we went back into a theatre environment, with actual laughter, it was really moving for us comedians. It was probably also moving for the audience to be in a group environment where they were all reacting together. Laughter and response to performance is such a collective thing.


How did you get started in comedy?


When I left drama school over twenty years ago, things were very different – for example, we didn’t have social media. There was a big drop-off rate on my course, and there were about eighteen people left in my year by the time we finished. When we got to the final Agents Night, I got a sneaking suspicion this career wasn’t going to be easy – just one girl got an agent.

I knew I really wanted to perform, I really wanted to keep going. I was never going to be a leading lady, but I knew I could make people laugh and pull off a comedic performance. I also had a real love for stand up. Even though I’d never done it, I loved watching it.

“Early on in my career, I realised that if I was going to make this work, I was going to have to make my own work.”

Now, as a standup comedian, I write material and perform it and nobody else needs to cast me. I’ve cast myself in the leading role. I’m really glad I did that. 


Brighton is full of creative talent. How is it living here, compared to where you’ve lived before?


I was born in Wales, grew up in Ireland, then lived in Surrey, Glasgow, London, and then here. When I moved to Brighton, it seemed like a natural choice. 

A lot of people think you drop off the radar and lose out on opportunities when you leave London – so I wondered if I’d just disappear, wear clogs and grow herbs in my garden. But we’re so lucky in this city. It’s got such unique energy and creativeness. I’ve never regretted moving here.

I still gigged a lot in London and then would come home to Brighton – it’s only an hour, which is easily doable. So, my early worry of missing out because of not being in London never materialised.


What makes Brighton such a unique environment and a great place for creatives? 


I love this city. I’ve moved around so much in my life and I’ve never really called anywhere home except for here. You only have to look at the Pavilion to know somebody knew this was going to be a fun place to be. It’s an Indian Palace in the middle of Sussex. It’s camp. It’s opulent. It’s ridiculous. It’s beautiful. It must have stuck out enormously in the 1800s.

Brighton has always had that energy to it, and it’s got such diversity in its creatives – including drag and queer theatre. 

“I’m really happy to live in Brighton, and really lucky to live here, there’s a collective responsibility for the place.”

People often ask if I would live anywhere else, and the answer is no, not in the UK. I’ve been to most places as a comedian, it’s a handy way of getting a feel for places. I think most people who live, work or study here feel lucky to have the opportunity to do it.


Why do you think Brighton has such a strong sense of community?


I think it has something to do with its geography. We’re squished from one side by The Downs and closed in on the other side by the sea. So in a way, we have to get on! 

I loved living in London, right up to the point I really didn’t. I think everybody reaches a point where they realise they have to leave because it’s so vast and it’s got everything going on, but it’s got an exclusivity to it. With Brighton, I’ve always felt that if I chose to be part of something or join something, it would be open to me.


We don’t have huge venues here like in London, but what’s been your experience of the live scene here?


Obviously, every venue has struggled over the last 18 months, but there have also been lots of opportunities within the city. The Warren built a huge stage right on the seafront, so there were music, comedy and kids’ gigs going on all summer.

My heart is connected to Komedia. That’s where I’ve spent a lot of my time and I did some of my earliest gigs there. I’ve died on that stage and then come back again. It’s lovely that it’s right in the city centre, and it’s such a friendly venue. I’ve run a monthly comedy night there called Bent Double for the last 13 years. I try out new material there because the crowd are loyal, with a high number of returning customers. I have to try new stuff there because they’ve heard all my material. It makes me come up with stuff sometimes on the spot, which is stressful, but it’s good! 


Is Brighton a popular place on the comedy circuit? 


Comedians want to perform here because they know they’ll get a good audience who are comedy savvy. I never have a problem convincing anybody to come and do my gigs, they love it here, and they look forward to performing their solo shows too.

There’s an openness here too. Not to slag off the rest of the UK, parts of it are delightful. But there are particular cities that comedians hate playing because they know there’s going to be cynicism in the audience. But without a doubt, comedians really enjoy coming to Brighton.


What’s next for you, are you going to keep a mix of live comedy and TV work?


That’s what I would like to do. It’s been interesting having this forced pause from live performance, though it was initially terrifying. Performing can get tiring after so long, so to have that break, and have time to realise you want to get back on stage is really great.

Hopefully, now I’m in that pleasant position where you do a bit of television, and it helps the live stuff, and vice versa.


How do you deal with the ups and downs of being a performer?


It can be terrifying. And I’ll be honest, there have been times over the last 20 years where I’ve gone: “Is this it?” Most comedians will have that moment where they think: “Have I written my last joke?”

Over any career, no matter what you do, you’ll have periods where work is going really well, but you’ll also have those plateaus or times when work diminishes. It’s inevitable.

There have been many times in the last 20 years where I’ve nearly given up. It tends to happen every four years. Because sometimes it seems like it’s not working out, even when you’re working so hard. 

“I’ve learned over time to keep at it. If you don’t go away, eventually they can’t ignore you. That’s my philosophy.”

Not everybody makes it in this business, because it is brutal, and there is rejection. I’ve been rejected from three things this week. Ten years ago, I’d have sat in the corner rocking back and forth but now I know it’s just par for the course. It’s a matter of learning to manage your expectations. Sticking at it is my way of pushing through. I’m like the Thora Hird of comedy. For the younger viewers, she was an elderly actress.

You will get rejected, it’s just part of what we do. You have to learn how to deal with it.


Any last pearls of wisdom you want to share?


I’ve learnt a lot through the years, including how important it is to be professional. Some people think of comedians as clowns, but you’re a professional and you’ve got to maintain a level of professionalism. 

For example, don’t be late. If you’ve got lines to learn, learn them. If you’ve been asked to do something for the job, do it.



Follow Zoe on Instagram: @zoelyonscomedy

Follow Zoe on Twitter: @zoelyons

Check out Zoe’s Website: www.zoelyons.co.uk

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